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Survival / May 16, 2013

5 ways to not die

Written by: Matt Minich

Utah’s Boulder Outdoor Survival School is famously tough. The school’s 28-day courses require students to catch their own food, build their own shelters, and cook on fires they start without the aid of matches or a lighter. It’s not unusual for students to lose 20 pounds or more.

So when we asked B.O.S.S. program director Steve Dessinger to share his top five survival pointers, we expected lessons on snakebite treatment or cougar wrestling. Instead, we got five actionable, common-sense tips to keep an adventure from devolving into a survival situation in the first place.


1. Always share your plan

No one will look for you if no one knows you’re missing. Whether your trip is a day hike or a two-week backpacking trip, always share your itinerary and expected time of return with a friend or family member before you go.

Depending on the length of the trip, this can be as easy as sending a text or updating your Facebook status. On longer trips, be careful not to change your itinerary mid-trip unless you can call someone to let them know.

And as an added bonus, you’ll get a chance to boast about your outdoor adventures without looking like a total jerk.

You won't have to survive if you don't get lost. If you don't know already, learn to use a map and compass.

In a survival situation, remember your priorities: shelter first, then water, then food.

2. Stay where you got lost

It’s not easy to admit when you’re lost—as a general rule, if you don’t know where you are, you’re lost. And when you’re lost, probably the very worst thing you can do is keep moving.

“There are 360 degrees on a compass,” says Dessinger. “So you have about a 359:1 chance of picking the right direction” if you move without the right information. If there are no immediate dangers in your area, just stay put and don’t risk it.

Even if your spot isn’t a soft campsite next to a babbling brook, chances are it’s good enough. For folks who wait, rescue usually comes within 72 hours.


3. Keep your priorities straight

Your body needs a lot of things to survive, but fortunately it doesn’t need them all at once. Knowing where to focus your energy in a survival situation can keep you from making a fatal mistake.

First and foremost, says Dessinger, address your mental state and ensure that you are calm enough to make sound decisions. Then address any life-threatening injuries as quickly as possible.

Only once you are calm and not mortally wounded should you address your circumstances. And even though you may be hungry and thirsty, remember: you can survive three weeks without food and three days without water, but can die in just three hours if exposed to the elements.


4. Hole up and settle in

Once you’ve made the decision to stay in place and await rescue, you’ll want to set yourself to work building a shelter. This will not only provide you protection from the elements, it will occupy your mind and keep you from panic.

For a simple sleeping shelter, Dessigner suggests using logs rocks to create a bed frame of sorts—something the length of your body and about three feet deep. Fill this frame with natural materials like leaves or pine needles, and burrow in the mix. This should shield you from cold, wind, and even light rain.

Resist the temptation to seek out food or water unless your hunger or thirst become immediate threats to your survival. Never risk injury by seeking water in difficult terrain, or risk illness by eating plants you don’t know to be edible.


5. Come armed with a skill set

The four tips above make a solid rubric for most survival situations, but wilderness mishaps don’t come prepackaged. Be it injury, changing conditions, or just the passage of time, some factor is bound to force you to make tough decisions.

And those decisions just might require some of those “sexier” survival skills—it doesn’t hurt to know how to bow-drill a fire, trap game, or navigate with a map and compass. To add those skills to your toolkit, you’re better off signing up for a course with B.O.S.S. or a similar outfit.

Based on a Brigham Young University wilderness program, B.O.S.S. has been in the survival business for 45 years. The school offers field courses that range in length from seven to 28 days.

about the author

Matt Minich

Matt Minich is Editorial Director for Shoulders of Giants. He has spent more than a decade writing, editing, and curating content about outdoor sports and adventure. As an adventure journalist he has climbed peaks in Patagonia, rappelled waterfalls in Colorado, B.A.S.E. jumped in Moab, and sampled fermented horse milk in Kyrgyzstan.

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